Harry Maguire might have been wearing the captain’s armband for Manchester United, but it was Lisandro Martinez who felt like the leader of this defence against West Ham.
Martinez was excellent once again for United, defending aggressively and bravely, firing up his teammates and using the ball superbly. He was vocal as well, with his own teammates and the officials.
United are stretched defensively with Raphael Varane’s latest injury and Victor Lindelof’s illness, but Martinez feels like the constant at the moment. He’s played alongside all three on at least three occasions and continues to lead impressively whoever he is playing alongside.
This was Maguire’s first return to a Premier League XI since the first two games of the season and he was assured defensively. His passing was nowhere near as sharp as Martinez’s and he was forced into a couple of desperate lunges. United’s proactive approach under Erik ten Hag forces the centre-backs to defend one-on-one at times and it’s not a major strength for Maguire.
But he did the basics well and that was probably enough for the watching England manager, Gareth Southgate. Martinez was the defensive star, however.
There was one excellent block from a Gianluca Scamacca shot in the second half before a brave header that saw him take a boot to the head from the forward. His aggression is nothing new but it did stub out some dangerous attacks at times.
The Argentine’s desire to do the dirty work defensively, to get into the trenches and fight for his teammates, is infectious. As United were punned back in the second half Maguire rose to the challenge and David de Gea made a couple of outstanding saves.
Another player who looks to be enjoying Martinez’s attitude to defending is Diogo Dalot. A year ago his United future looked pretty bleak. He couldn’t get in the team ahead of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and hadn’t started a Premier League game since October 2019.
That run would end last December and now Dalot is one of the first names on the team sheet, a versatile full-back ticking nearly every box for Ten Hag. The Dutchman asks a lot of his full-backs and Dalot has embraced the role, tucking into midfield often as well as offering a threat from wide areas.
The fact Dalot is the only outfield player to start every game under Ten Hag is partly down to his progress and partly due to Wan-Bissaka’s absence from the squad, but Dalot deserves plenty of credit for the improvement he’s showing in his own game.
It was the defensive aspect that was most impressive against West Ham. This wasn’t a convincing United performance and they had to weather plenty of pressure in the second half, but Dalot was key to that.
He regularly tucked in at the back post as the Hammers tried for an aerial bombardment and four times the right-back won crucial headers in dangerous positions, helping United to hold on to a vital three points.
When United were beaten by Brighton and Brentford in their first two games of the Premier League season the idea of a top-four finish seemed a long way away, but it is now plausible that they could be fourth by the time the season breaks for the World Cup.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for United and they should have greater ambitions than just finishing fourth now this season. Pep Guardiola’s suggestion they are in the title race might be a little far-fetched – although they are only six points behind City – but finishing second or third looks entirely plausible.
The most encouraging aspect for United is that there are visible improvements under Ten Hag on an almost weekly basis and there is no reason to think that won’t continue in the second half of the season. This was a scrappy win, but most importantly it was a win.
In a campaign where Liverpool are slumping dramatically, with Tottenham and Chelsea far from convincing, United have a chance to reassert some authority and plant their flag firmly back in the top four.
As good as United have been to watch in recent games, notably against Tottenham and Chelsea, this was a reminder that they remain a work in progress under Ten Hag.
United controlled those games at times and they’ve thrived against the bigger teams this season, but they’ve found it tougher against teams who have confronted them with a more defensive mindset.
Their victories against Southampton, Leicester City, Everton and West Ham have all been by just one goal and they can struggle to break those opponents down.
In some of those games they’ve had to absorb spells of pressure as well and their poor second-half performance against West Ham required a considerable defensive rearguard. David Moyes’ side will be disappointed they didn’t get the equaliser they perhaps deserved.
United’s inability to control the second half against West Ham evidently infuriated Ten Hag, who was becoming more and more animated on the touchline as his side conceded possession cheaply time and time again.
His substitutes have generally had a good impact this season, but the decision to introduce Scott McTominay and Fred in this game arguably invited pressure. Ten Hag will probably say he was looking for more control, but it just pushed United deeper and conceded ground in midfield.
In the end they were indebted to a backs-to-the-wall defensive performance and some excellent goalkeeping from David de Gea.
Given Anthony Elanga hadn’t started a game for United since September 8 it’s impossible to make a case that the academy graduate had played his way into the team. Instead, this was a clear sign of Jadon Sancho playing his way out of the first XI.
After a promising pre-season and a bright start to the season, Sancho has gone back into his shell recently and he felt telling that he was replaced early in the second half at Stamford Bridge last week, being replaced by a midfielder in Fred.
With Antony picking up an injury in training Sancho might have expected a reprieve against West Ham, but Ten Hag’s decision to opt for Elanga instead should act as a warning to the £73million winger, who simply isn’t living up to that price tag on a consistent enough basis at the moment.
With Elanga then replaced by McTominay early in the second half, it looks clear that Sancho has work to do to get back into this team.